Like many neighbouring countries in the Levant, Jordan is known for its dips and tiny, tasty dishes called mezze. Scattered on the table in bowls and mopped up with fresh pita or saj breads, meals begin with an overwhelming array of options. Mouttabal to tabouli, hummus, labne yoghurt, and a variety of other rich and creamy appetizers, each with its own distinct taste but fitting seamlessly, one after the other, into a crescendo of flavours.
To start each meal with an assault of tastes seemed decadent at first but quickly became the norm, setting the stage for the more complicated, show-worthy main dishes.
And then there was Maklouba.
There are many foods from Jordan that are simple to cook, braising meat with spices, serving over rice or another grain or wrapped in a steaming saj bread. But maklouba (and the even more ornate mansaf) is not one of them.
Literally meaning ‘upside down’ dish, maklouba features roasted vegetables, a meat of choice and an accompaniment of spiced rice. But it is presentation that counts here, because these ingredients are not plated side by side. No, that’s too easy. Jordan clearly took a look at pineapple upside-down cake and scoffed “please, we’ve done this for hundreds of years – with meat.”
Maklouba is pre-cooked in segments, vegetables first and rice second, folded with a mix of traditionally Middle Eastern flavours. Piled artfully into a pot and cooked over the stove, the whole lot of it is tipped upside down on the plate once complete, revealing the patterns of meat and vegetables below. The rice (used to getting its own plate) is relegated to second billing. Sorry, rice! The chicken-eggplant-cauliflower combo is just too good to ignore.
It’s not a difficult dish to make, though it does take a few hours. Presentation, however, is key: when you up-end the pot as you serve the dish, you want a neat pile of vegetables and meat to stare at.
Not spilling everything out as you flip over the pot is also key; let’s just say when I tried this at home, the first iteration ended up on the floor.
It’s been fun to experiment with different versions of maklouba, building a tapestry of colours and textures that is only visible when I flip over the dish. I’ve tried it frying up the onions with turmeric first, rendering them yellow, and leaving the rice white. Another version included curls of eggplant skin to add some purple to the end result. Lots of room for creativity here!
An Easy Maklouba Recipe from Jordan
(Adapted from Beit Sitti Cooking School, with some changes)
- 1 onion
- 2 medium sized eggplants
- 1 cauliflower, cut into small florets
- 1kg of meat (chicken, lamb or beef works) diced or cut into pieces
- 2 cups of plain rice
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 2 tsp turmeric powder
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp Baharat (“7 spices”). Note: this can be obtained at most Middle Eastern grocers, but if not, you can make your own. The 7 spice blend is a mix of ground spices: black pepper, paprika, cumin, coriander, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom. Go easy on the cardamom if making your own – it’s quite strong!
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 cup fresh parsley, chopped
- salt & pepper to taste
- Optional (but it’s good, trust me): sliced almonds and pine nuts.
- Peel and cut up the eggplant into thick horizontal slices and marinate them in salt for 2 minutes. Wash the eggplant in water to get rid of the salt, and then drain the slices over paper towels.
- Soak 2 cups of rice in warm water with two pinches of salt and 2 teaspoons turmeric powder and leave for 30 minutes.
- In a large saucepan, fry the cauliflower florets and eggplant slices until brown. (Alternatively, these can be roasted.) Put in a strainer until completely drained.
- In the same pan, heat the almond pieces and pine nuts until they are fried. Set aside for later.
- Place meat into a large pot and cover with water. Add in an onion chopped into quarters, the bay leaves the 7 spices mix and cook until meat is done, approximately 30 minutes.
- Remove the meat and season with salt, saving the broth for later in a bowl.
￼￼Time to build your pot:
- In your large pot (the one you used to cook the chicken), layer the cauliflower florets and eggplant in a desired pattern, then add the chicken pieces as a third layer.
- Spread the garlic cloves over the meat, and then arrange the rice over it all.
- Add some salt and additional turmeric powder and cumin powder to the chicken stock, then pour it on top of the stack you have just built. Make sure the sauce just covers the rice (2cm over the rice is ideal).
- Cook the saucepan on high heat for 7 minutes, and then cover and simmer for 40-45 minutes.
- When the water has fully evaporated (and the rice is fully cooked) take the pot off the heat and leave to cool.
- Flip the pot onto a serving plate and slowly and carefully remove the pot leaving a your masterpiece in its wake.
- Garnish with fresh parsley and the fried nuts.
Want more great recipes from the Middle East?
I recommend these cookbooks:
- The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, by Claudia Roden
- Jerusalem: A Cookbook, by powerhouse duo Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi
- Olives, Lemons & Za’atar: The Best Middle Eastern Home Cooking, by Rawia Bishara